Nathan Kemp has been the face of Ponsonby rugby in a number of ways for a number of years. He was the guy whose yell of triumph was captured just after the final whistle in the 2002 Gallaher Shield final. He was one of a succession of captains to hold the Gallaher Shield aloft during Ponsonby’s epic 10 titles in 11 years run in 2001-11. He played for Auckland and, briefly, the Blues. His 85 matches for the club would have been higher except he was one of the new breed of player who was good enough to win a professional contract and ply his trade offshore.
He was the face of the KFC Super rugby commercial in 2017 – with his boys proudly wearing Ponsonby kit in the ads. He has been the face that meets and greets many players from around town or around the world when they first arrive at Ponsonby, or want to discuss their options for future development.
When he returned from England, married and with a young family, his playing days were done but his biggest contribution to the club was just about to begin – and that’s not forgetting his recognition as the Chairman’s Trophy winner in 2004 for ‘Special Services to the Club – Non-playing’.
Kemp’s 2002 photo had been incorporated into the one-off wallpaper used to redecorate the Committee Room in the 2011 rebuild at Western Springs, but being chosen to fill Bryan Williams’ Director of Rugby shoes in 2015 was among the ‘Hardest Act to Follow’ appointments in club history.
Undaunted, as any good Ponies front row man would be, Kemp set about putting his own stamp on a job that was changing with the times, but never forgetting for a minute what made the club special. He had to keep the traditions strong, but in the new rugby world often found himself dealing with a player whose values were not necessarily the same as those of his father’s generation. Finding the balance could be a delicate operation.
In his own way, he managed to achieve this. He has been a little bit visionary, a little bit taskmaster, a talent scout at times, a planner, a guy who has to have the community interest in the forefront of his mind, a driver and a sounding board. He has to deliver results; that’s still as important as it has ever been at Auckland’s most successful and most famous club.
Kemp came into his job not long after Ponsonby completed one of the outstanding eras from any period in Auckland rugby history. In the way of life, there has to be a turn of the wheel. But at Western Springs five years without a Gallaher Shield is akin to a drought, and the faithful get a little antsy should the special cupboard on the wall remain empty too long. Of all the items on the check-list, this one stood out as a must-do.
Despite the pressure and occasional growling, Kemp didn’t panic. He saw a three-year road to the next title and held the faith with his management team and players. This looks almost prescient; in 2016 the Premiers weren’t really in the hunt; a year later they were closer but fell short in a winnable semi-final at University; in 2018 they went into the playoffs as winners of the Alan McEvoy Trophy, and then accounted for Eden 24-7 in the semi-final.
Below Premier level the club is still the powerhouse it has been in Auckland for generations. Every team is expected to be good, simply because of the famous colours they wear. Every team presents a Director of Rugby with challenges as well as moments to savour, and this they all do on an almost weekly basis. Kemp survives with sanity intact, and somehow all the work has been completed on time. It’s no easy job, but it has been ably filled for the last three years.
On Nathan Kemp’s last day in his current position, Ponsonby will face 2017 champion University in the Gallaher Shield final at Eden Park. No doubt this coincidence will be raised in team meetings during the week, but it won’t be by the man himself – that’s not his style. Others will want to achieve that win as a going-away present to a good bloke.
Kemp will head for England with his family bearing the club’s best wishes for his future, and thanks for services already rendered. It is an impressive list. There will be a large number of Ponies fans who will consider a Gallaher Shield win to be a fitting cap on those years of toil on the club’s behalf.
We’ll know about 4.30 on Saturday afternoon if this story will have the dream ending.